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Who doesn't read the back of a cereal box at breakfast? Ten years ago in Costa Rica, a private foundation and a food company took this thought and ran with it, launching a novel way of promoting science on the back of cereal boxes. Today, their system has become an ally for hundreds of teachers, and is a hit across Central America.

In 1994 Fundación Cientec, a non-profit Costa Rican organisation for promoting science and technology, was looking for a new way of conveying scientific information and research ideas to the public. At the same time, the food company Alimentos Jack's had just launched a new line of cereals.

"We were looking for a way not to waste the box, and we wanted to use it as a means for promoting science," says Andrés Pozuelo, who is both Managing Director of Alimentos Jack's and a member of Cientec. "Science is appealing to everybody."

The two bodies met and agreed to a pilot plan of developing material for six-month periods over the next two years, which would allow Cientec to disseminate basic, practical scientific information on the cereal boxes.

Seventy per cent of Costa Rica's large middle class population eats cereal, so the readership was already in place. But the idea didn't stop there. The partnership planned to distribute the boxes throughout Central America – to Panama, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and El Salvador, where Jack's cereals are also sold.

According to Pozuelo, the agreement benefited both parties by only requiring the payment of production and material costs. In this way, Alimentos Jack's would purchase the scientific information and designs from Cientec and print them on its cereal boxes.

Soon after the agreement was signed, the partnership found itself facing considerable challenges. "The main challenge when designing the educational campaigns was the size of the boxes [19 x 25.2 cm]," explains Alejandra León-Castellá, Cientec director. "It was very hard to create attractive information units that could include self-explanatory scientific and mathematical themes, and in small doses."

They decided to develop thematic series, each covering between four and six different boxes. The next challenge was to decide which themes to promote. 

"In order to select a new theme, Cientec worked with both the scientific community and with the firm," says León-Castellá. "It was a long process, but we reaped the rewards eventually. Academics came forward to contribute ideas and experiments to the campaigns."

The first theme was astronomy – a good choice, given its wide appeal. "We started with a collection of ten boxes focusing on the most important objects in our Solar System: the Sun, Mercury, Venus, the Earth and the Moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto," says León-Castellá. "Each box included an illustration and basic scientific and exploratory information."

The public's response was immediate, largely due to the scarcity of material available in Spanish. Teachers and academics showed great interest in the collections.

When the pilot plan stage finished, feedback was very positive, enabling the project to continue. "Many people wait for the boxes to arrive in the shops with real anticipation," says Pozuelo, whose main aim is get people reading scientific material on a more informal basis. "They are used by teachers, parents and children. In fact, we receive many suggestions from people."

In fact, according to Pozuelo, the project is responsible for around 15 per cent of the growth reported in the last three years in total sales of the cereals.

In 1995, a second thematic series was devised, focusing on the main moons of the Solar System. In 1996, the partnership launched a series on the environment, with one focusing on the trees of Costa Rica. "We looked for six native species and produced a collection of boxes dedicated to them," says León-Castellá.

The theme was mathematics in 1999. The team developed a series with problems that combined mathematics with scientific concepts, although the answers were not included.

Science for all

León-Castellá says there was still another challenge to overcome, however: how to present the material so it would appeal to people of all ages, both sexes, and many different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. "Science, experimentation and the construction of models have been dominated by males for a long time," she says. "Social expectations continue to influence most young people's choice of work and profession."

To tackle these difficulties, the team developed concepts based on the principles of gender equality and included them in the messages, presenting a diversity of roles and platforms on which to develop them. The characters used sometimes to illustrate the material were also from different ethnic backgrounds.

Finally, they selected a set of experiments using cheap, recyclable and readily available materials, making them accessible for all readers.

Once these problems had been ironed out and the public had embraced the project, the team began developing new, innovative ideas. In 2000, for example, they began experimenting with new formats and added inserts to the material printed on the boxes. "This enabled us to expand the number and variety of different educational materials to 30 for each six-monthly campaign", says León-Castellá.

In 2003, a series of cards was included with science questions and answers; these were so successful that a second series is being prepared for this year. Also this year, a series on making simple scientific instruments from waste materials is being prepared.

Cientec is now gearing up for a brand-new challenge. "We are in the process of producing a book that compiles all the experiments developed in 2001 and 2002," says León-Castellá.

A new country is also joining the project as part of the Alimentos Jack's expanding operations: Pozuelo says that next year the cereals will be distributed in Trinidad and Tobago. The cost of producing the boxes now stands at something like $15,000 for each programme.

A tool that works

The project Cientec and Alimentos Jack's embarked on a decade ago has become a valued support tool for trainers of science teachers and also for secondary and primary school teachers.

The main beneficiaries have been rural communities, thanks to the simplicity with which the themes are presented, and the fact that materials for the experiments are easy to obtain. A number of teachers interviewed by SciDev.Net express real appreciation for the project.

"Many teachers complain about the lack of material for working with their students in class, and they are always on the look out for innovative and easy experiments, with demonstrable results…and that's what the cereal box project has offered them," says Leda Roldán, a teacher in the University of Costa Rica's (UCR) physics department.

"I use the cards with my university students because they're simple experiments that make it easy to put the concepts across," she adds.

In her opinion, the limited space on the cereal box is the project's main shortcoming, mainly because the brevity of the material means questions are raised that may hinder people's progress when performing the experiments.

And despite the fact that Cientec includes telephone numbers and website addresses on the packets for further information, rural people may have limited access to the Internet or public telephone services.

Another physics teacher at UCR, Luz María Moya, believes that the project has achieved its aim of producing clear, accessible science for the general public.

"People discover that science can be fun and developed with materials that are within their reach," she says. "This is essential in order for people to be able to discover the spirit of science."

Both Moya and Roldán collaborate with Cientec in workshops organised to train teachers in rural areas to use the question-and-answer cards. They feel the response has been fairly positive.

"We organise a workshop with a maximum of 30 places and 60 people turn up, and that's even when the project has not, in my opinion, been promoted sufficiently," says Moya. She feels that the project is particularly praiseworthy for taking science to the people, regardless of gender or socioeconomic status.

It's an opinion shared by Zayleen Vargas, a primary school teacher from the rural community of Tornillal de San Jerónimo, which lies to the north of Costa Rica's capital San José. She told SciDev.Net that she uses the cards to prepare study plans for almost 40 students. "These are materials that are easy to explain to the students and help to arouse their interest in the subject," she says. Food for thought indeed.

This article was commissioned for the Spanish and Portuguese versions of the e-guide to science communication.

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